By Giving Bibles to Ellis Island Immigrants, They Altered the Course of History

In Ministry by Biblica Staff

They probably came from various parts of the city – the Upper Eastside, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx… Some may have walked. Others took carriages or rode horses. How they got to the Manhattan home of Theodorus Van Wyck on that December evening in 1809 isn’t clear. What is clear is that they were concerned about their city. They saw something strange happening: a seemingly endless and rapidly swelling stream of immigrants flooding into America from all over the world in search of hope and a new life.

Instead of complaining about this development, doing nothing, or reacting in fear, they gathered to pray and ask God to reveal His plan for this season of instability and change.

Loading an agent’s touring car in 1924.

What the thousands upon thousands of visitors had in common was a need to know Jesus Christ. But how could they learn about the God who loved them and who sent His only Son to die for their sins, those meeting in the Van Wyck home wondered, without the Bible?

Standing on the shoulders of Christians like John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Martin Luther, William Tyndale, John Wesley, and Nikolaus Zinzendorf, they humbly sought God for a strategy. Before the night had ended, the New York Bible Society had been formed.

Missionaries of the New York Bible Society with Ellis Island immigrants.

The concept of a Bible Society was not original. That same year, William White, rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia and chaplain of the Continental Congress and the Congress of the United States, had established the Philadelphia Bible Society and issued a call for similar institutions to be established. Like other Bible societies, the New York Bible Society (NYBS) was focused quite specifically on sharing God’s Word.

The organization’s first constitution reflected this:

The subscribers, desirous of extending the knowledge of the Holy Scriptures, in which God has revealed the way of salvation to our lost and ruined race, and being persuaded that a more extensive distribution of them among persons who are destitute of them, will have, by the divine blessing, the most beneficial effects, have formed themselves into a Society, to be called The New York Bible Society.

What those gathered at the Van Wyck residence that evening didn’t realize was that they were being proactive. According to Wilton Tifft’s “Ellis Island,” the Louisiana Purchase, completed in 1803, had doubled the size of the United States, and the completion of the Eerie Canal in 1825 made New York the most important connection between Europe and the American interior. By 1930, a “massive migration” was taking place and by 1860, more than five million newcomers had arrived.

Handing out Bibles in Harlem in the 1960’s.

Recognizing that everyone needs God’s Word and finding ways to meet that need soon became a pattern of faithfulness for the NYBS. They not only provided immigrants with the Bible in their native language, but took God’s Word to hospital patients, prison inmates, the blind, the deaf, children, minorities, members of the military…

And that has continued to be the story of Biblica. After the passage of 208 years, changing names (from NYBS to The International Bible Society to Biblica), and relocating to Colorado, we are still all about the Bible – finding ways to provide people around the world with God’s Word in translations they can easily understand and quickly access.

NYBS Warehouse workers early 1900’s.

Biblica Staff

Biblica, the International Bible Society, is a worldwide ministry that has been helping people read and understand God’s Word for over 200 years. We are committed to providing the Bible in accurate, contemporary translations and formats so that more people around the world will have the opportunity to be transformed by Jesus Christ. We do this through translation and publishing, by making the Bible accessible, and with innovative Bible engagement programs like Community Bible Experience. To learn more about our ministry and how you can partner with us to share God’s Word with people around the world, go to our ministry page.

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